By age twelve, Theodore Roosevelt had spent almost every day of his short life struggling with horrible asthma. Despite his privileged birth, his life hung in a precarious balance—the attacks were an almost nightly near-death experience. Tall, gangly, and frail, the slightest exertion would upset the entire balance and leave him bedridden for weeks.
One day his father came into his room and delivered a message that would change the young boy’s life: “Theodore, you have the mind but haven’t got the body. I’m giving you the tools to make your body. It’s going to be hard drudgery and I think you have the determination to go through with it.”
You’d think that would be lost on a child, especially a fragile one born into great wealth and status. But according to Roosevelt’s younger sister, who witnessed the conversation, it wasn’t. His response, using what would become his trademark cheerful grit, was to look at his father and say with determination: “I’ll make my body.”
At the gym that his father built on the second-floor porch, young Roosevelt proceeded to work out feverishly every day for the next five years, slowly building muscle and strengthening his upper body against his weak lungs and for the future. By his early twenties the battle against asthma was essentially over, he’d worked—almost literally—that weakness out of his body.
That gym work prepared a physically weak but smart young boy for the uniquely challenging course on which the nation and the world were about to embark. It was the beginning of his preparation for and fulfillment of what he would call “the Strenuous Life.”
And for Roosevelt, life threw a lot at him: He lost a wife and his mother in rapid succession, he faced powerful, entrenched political enemies who despised his progressive agenda, was dealt defeat in elections, the nation was embroiled in foreign wars, and he survived nearly fatal assassination attempts. But he was equipped for it all because of his early training and because he kept at it every single day.
In short, the obstacle was the way. Those obstacles made him who he was, and prepared him for everything that lay ahead.
What about you? Could you actually handle yourself if things suddenly got worse?
We take weakness for granted. We assume that the way we’re born is the way we simply are, that our disadvantages are permanent. And then we atrophy from there.
That’s not necessarily the best recipe for the difficulties of life.
Not everyone accepts their bad start in life. They remake their bodies and their lives with activities and exercise. They prepare themselves for the hard road. Do they hope they never have to walk it? Sure. But they are prepared for it in any case.
Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.
We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano—sound mind in a strong body).
This approach goes back to the ancient philosophers. Every bit of the philosophy they developed was intended to reshape, prepare, and fortify them for the challenges to come. Many saw themselves as mental athletes—after all, the brain is a muscle like any other active tissue. It can be built up and toned through the right exercises. Over time, their muscle memory grew to the point that they could intuitively respond to every situation. Especially obstacles.
It is said of the Jews, deprived of a stable homeland for so long, their temples destroyed, and their communities in the Diaspora, that they were forced to rebuild not physically but within their minds. The temple became a metaphysical one, located independently in the mind of every believer. Each one—wherever they’d been dispersed around the world, whatever persecution or hardship they faced—could draw upon it for strength and security.
Consider the line from the Haggadah: “In every generation a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out of Egypt.”
During Passover Seder, the menu is bitter herbs and unleavened bread—the “bread of affliction.” Why? In some ways, this taps into the fortitude that sustained the community for generations. The ritual not only celebrates and honors Jewish traditions, but it prompts those partaking in the feast to visualize and possess the strength that has kept them going.
This is strikingly similar to what the Stoics called the Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down. An important caveat is that we are not born with such a structure; it must be built and actively reinforced. During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times, we can depend on it. We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us.
To Roosevelt, life was like an arena and he was a gladiator. In order to survive, he needed to be strong, resilient, fearless, ready for anything. And he was willing to risk great personal harm and expend massive amounts of energy to develop that hardiness.
You’ll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is—at best—indifferent to your existence. Whether we were born weak like Roosevelt or we are currently experiencing good times, we should always prepare for things to get tough. In our own way, in our own fight, we are all in the same position Roosevelt was in.
No one is born a gladiator. No one is born with an Inner Citadel. If we’re going to succeed in achieving our goals despite the obstacles that may come, this strength in will must be built.
To be great at something takes practice. Obstacles and adversity are no different. Though it would be easier to sit back and enjoy a cushy modern life, the upside of preparation is that we’re not disposed to lose all of it—least of all our heads—when someone or something suddenly messes with our plans.
It’s almost a cliché at this point, but the observation that the way to strengthen an arch is to put weight on it—because it binds the stones together, and only with tension does it hold weight—is a great metaphor.
The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.
Are you okay being alone? Are you strong enough to go a few more rounds if it comes to that? Are you comfortable with challenges? Does uncertainty bother you? How does pressure feel?
Because these things will happen to you. No one knows when or how, but their appearance is certain. And life will demand an answer. You chose this for yourself, a life of doing things. Now you better be prepared for what it entails.
It’s your armor plating. It doesn’t make you invincible, but it helps prepare you for when fortune shifts…and it always does.
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday is $1.99 on Amazon right now for a very limited time. If you want to check it out, or give it as a gift, it’ll never be cheaper than that.
You can also check out our brand new The Obstacle Is The Way pendant, as well as The Obstacle is the Way medallion which is inspired by the same insights from Marcus Aurelius and is awesome for carrying with you everywhere you go.